International, interdisciplinary and “on the move”

Today, I’ve been at Southampton University’s interdisciplinary week, for a session on the World University Network, of which, Southampton is a part. WUN sponsors my trip last year to the the US to attend and speak at the the Decoding the Digital Conference at University of Rochester.

After a brief introduction to the session from my supervisor Graham Earl, and another one to the WUN from Elanora Gandolfini, Professor Leslie Carr, of the University’s Web Science Institute, kicked off by trying to claim that universities are old and more sustainable than the countries in which they are based. (I’m not going to agree or disagree.) He does make a compelling case however that there were attempts to make things like the World Wide Web before this academic and open initiative actually succeeded and was given free to the world.

He contrasts this with the rise of for profit academic publishing since the war, and recognizes the tension between the two methods of distribution and sharing of knowledge. But he concludes that universities are more than places to learn, but a vital engine for better worlds, woven into the social fabric, and more sustainable the Johnny-come-lately technology companies.

Then Chris Phethern, a third year PhD candidate, talked about a couple of exchange trips he has made alongside other Southampton students to Tromso and Korea, facilitated by WUN. Graeme Earl explained a little about the Research Mobility Programme (which got me to Rochester) and another programme that makes awards to specific projects.

He then went on to challenge us on various methods of interdisciplinary work, making me realize that though I work collaboratively on all sorts of written work, I do it by sharing multiple copies of the work on email, not by working on a single shared document like GoogleDocs.

I was on more comfortable ground when the discussion turned to social networking and blogging, two fellow PhD candidates I was sitting next to turned out to be far more nervous that I am about sharing this sort of stuff. Partly, I think, because they felt very few other people would be interested in their area. I countered that in the great scheme of things, I don’t expect VERY many people to be interested I this blog. But I feel I’ve already made useful contacts out of sharing my work here and on Twitter. However, justas we turned back to the front, one of the highlighted the concern he had about opening himself up to abuse on social networks. I think this is a very real concern for many, especially (it seems) women, as we transition from a pseudonominous internet society to a real-name one.

I have an action to take away from this session, to find out more about the University’s Internal Communications Network and SMuRF (and CalIT2). As someone who doesn’t spend much time on campus, I do feel I still rely too much on face-to-face real-world networking with my university cohort, and I might be missing the person also working at Southampton on a project that might perfectly compliment my own research.

Overall though, I left the session feeling very excited about the digital future of Universities. We may still be feeling our way nervously through the digital forest, but when the “find it” we’ll look back and realize that we changed the world.

The Invisible Hand – part 2

I promised more on the Blast Theory workshop I attended a couple of weeks back, and here it is. The two days were kicked off by Matt Adams of Blast Theory explaining why they’d titled the event with a term the Adam Smith had coined a couple of hundred years ago. Smith of course wrote about the Invisible Hand as a good thing, turning selfish acts into selfless ones:

By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations Book IV, chapter II, paragraph IX

However the Invisible Hand that we examined during the workshop had the power to be good, a more sinister. We were looking an profiling and personalisation. Matt started with off with an example of profiling. Mosaic is Experian’s database of UK households and organisations use to identify markets. My own day-job at the National Trust uses Mosaic, but you don’t have to be an organisation to access at least some of the data, their ForSite app is available for free  for your iOS or Android device. At the National Trust, we know that a number of the sixty segments into which Mosaic divides the population are more likely to become members than others, so certain postcodes might, for example, respond more positively to a fundraising appeal. Of course its a pretty broad brush, and describes a population by the people they live among, not as individuals. Its all about inference, not fact.

But technology enables organisations with the inclination to collect more and more data on individuals, not just addresses, and modern manufacturing processes allows a degree of mass-customization that moves the world of profiling into one of personalization. Matt spoke of the chain Zara, the high street face of Spanish company Inditex where staff collect feedback every day from customers, and send it to HQ, where designers collate and respond to what customers are looking for within weeks. Apparently only 3 or 4 units of each design are shipped to branches, and using the daily feedback from stores and a  2-3 week production process, the entire stock of a shop will change every 11 days.

Matt’s question to us all was, what does this mean for the arts?

Of course personalized art has been around for decades. Matt cited  Allan Kaprow’s 1959 work, 18 happenings in 6 parts; the neo-futurists’ ongoing Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind (which is not just personalized but also randomized – a roll of a dice defines your ticket price); and Lev Manovitch’s Soft Cinema as examples.

Blast Theory themselves are not alone in the contemporary application of technology to create art: Invisible FlockNon Zero OneConey; and Urban Angel all create worlds that are part theatre, part game experiences that create unique experiences for each audience member. Many of these experiences collect data on their participants, is this a good thing or an abuse of privilege?

In the discussion, concern was expressed about the power of profiling and personalization. I found myself playing devils advocate. Yes, profiling is a blunt tool, and can be used to exercise power unfairly upon minorities, but personalization, if its done right, is a dialogue. Some years ago, when I was a young man, I liked Levi’s 620 jeans. Then, with some retro rock and roll, Levis introduced 501s and 620s disappeared from the shops. I was gutted, I’m not a handsome man, but I’ve got a pretty fine set of pins, which 620s showed off at their best (or did at least, when I was slimmer), tight in all the right places (around the calf I meant!!). 501s were baggy, which might have been fashionable, but what I would have given for the manufacturing process that dangles now so temptingly in front of us now, where those few of us that were not persuaded to convert to 501s might still buy 620s, even better than they were before because they’re made to measure.

Of course the debate turned to privacy, such a vital topic in these post-Snowden times, but even here, despite my abhorrence of the state spying on its democratic masters, I found myself an apologist for Big Brother. Is “Privacy” actually an aberration, a blip in the long history of society, brought about only a few generations ago by scraping together enough coin to live in the luxury of separate bedrooms? For most of human history we’ve lived with a different concept of privacy, where communities knew pretty much everything that when on, and privilege bought some people only a reduced number of people to share the toilet with.

I think we concluded that the debate was less about privacy than power. We discussed the politics of knowledge, touching upon Marilyn Strathern’s simple hierarchy of data, information and knowledge. Data being the unprocessed stuff that we see (or sense by any other means); information being that data organised in some way so we can begin to see some sense in it; and, knowledge is information that has an effect, that makes us change our behaviors in some way. The fear is that data is being harvested  by large, wealthy organisations, in such huge quantities and the “common man” or woman can not make sense of it. So we let these organisations organize it into information, and offer us knowledge that manipulates our behaviours to the organisations’ benefit. A new Invisible Hand that isn’t working for the benefit of society as a whole.

Kelly Page offered us examples. Doubleclick was a company that monitored websurfing, following clickthroughs on banner ads especially, a form of anonymous behavioural profiling. They acquired an off-line catalogue company called Abacus with the intention of merging their anonymous data with the  personal information within Abacus’ database. (though after Microsoft called foul, they were prevented from doing so by the US FTC. Later they (and their data) were acquired by Google. Page worked for a time at DunnHumby, who run Tesco’s Clubcard, and surprised us with the revelation that Inland revenue use club card data to validate your tax return.

But why should big and sometimes anonymous corporations be the arbiters of data, information and knowledge? We explored ways in which artists might take the mechanics of big data and transform it into different, playful information and knowledge. Blast Theory shared projects that tried to do just that from early experiments with Prof Tanda’s Guess-A-Where to a more recent and on-going collaboration with National Theatre Wales. Then John McGrath and Katherine Jewkes both from National Theatre Wales came on to talk about being an organisation that started out as an on-line community, and how even they struggle to cope with the “small data” that their participants have shared.  But they also gave us a taste of a lovely game/perfomance that imagines having to smuggle yourself of the border of a newly independent Wales. Part of that game involves creating a fake passport for yourself, and they were surprised by participants willingness to give their real names and data rather than making stuff up.

Giles Lane of Proboscis told us about a fascinating co-creation with Anglia Ruskin University and the R&D section of Phillips who have a interest in telehealth. Their idea which echoed our earlier discussion around the politics of knowledge, was to take an individual’s medical data and turn it into a 3D printed model, a talisman, a lucky pebble, which they carry with them. A beautiful object used as a tangible locus of meaning, mindfulness, rather than the dull data which means not enough to change behavior.

So can art use big data/infomation/knowledge to benefit society? And what are the ethics of doing so? That was the meat of our discussion, and Blast Theory, having collected our thoughts (data), are organizing them (infomation) and will shortly share them in some useful format (knowledge).

When they do, I’ll share a link here.

Thank you, everybody who completed my survey

I took the survey off line today. 226 people responded, though 33 didn’t answer all the questions. Still that isn’t a bad sample size. Thank you to everyone that participated, even if you didn’t manage to answer all the questions. A quick scan though the answers tell me these things:

  • Mobile games have an awareness issue. Eleven people had never heard of Minecraft, 112 people had’t heard of Cut the Rope. 178 people haven’t heard of Ingress, the AR game that according to some sites, is “taking the world by storm.” Just 32 people said they’ve played a game that uses their device’s location.
  • Specialist gaming handhelds are the least popular play medium. 121 respondents said they “never” used a device like a Nintendo 3DS or Sony PSVita. And only 47 said they “sometimes”, “mostly” or “always” used one. By way of comparison only 51 people said they “never” used a phone to play games, and 124 said they “sometimes”, “mostly” or “always” used one.
  • Of the 202 respondents that answered the question about their phone, 97 have an Android, 67 an Apple, 22 don’t have a smartphone, eleven use a windows phone, and five a Blackberry.
  • SMS is the most popular method of messaging, 109 said they use it daily, compared to 30 for iMessage, 23 for Google, nineteen for WhatsApp, and 11 for Snapchat.
  • Facebook is the most popular social network still. 110 people said they use it daily.
  • Of the 193 people who answered the question on age, one was over 60, 59 between 41-60, 83 were 26-40, 47 were 16-25 and three claimed to be under 16.
  • 101 said they loved in the UK

But that’s just a first look through. The real interesting stuff will come after I’ve crunched the numbers on gaming motivations.

Another Conspiratorial meeting

Focus group

On the sixth day of March, in the town of Eastleigh, I met with a group of potential conspirators… Not really, but I did run a focus group to inform the development of the nacsent “Conspiracy 600” project (or whatever it ends up being called). So what did I learn? First of all, don’t rely on the SoundNote app. It crashed half-way through my focus group, and I’ve lost the recording of the first half of the session. Luckily I took notes.

The group was six people, from mid-teens to 30, all living or studying relatively local to Eastleigh. We began by discussing the games they enjoyed, and they mentioned everything from Draughts to Flappy Bird, with card games, Monopoly, Call of Duty and the Sims in between. They also talked unprompted about how and why they play games and in doing so, showed a great deal of diversity within the group, some played casual games to pass the time, others didn’t touch them. One or two said that before they invested any time in a game, two or three people had to tell them it was worth playing. One person spoke about playing (physically) alone but with on-line friends. Another use a term I hadn’t heard before, but which everybody understood: Rage games.

I had planned to ask specifically about why they played games, and what they got out of them, but a couple couldn’t stay long and so (given that they’d discussed it a bit already) I cut it out of my plan. As it turns out one left and covered for the other who stayed to the end, so in retrospect, I’d have liked to include that section after all. Never mind … next time.

Instead I moved onto a discussion of game mechanics. I’d printed out a number a playing cards, each naming feature of videogames culled from the “choices and feedback” lists in Navarro’s article on games and emotion. I asked them to work together to group these, however they saw fit, as I recorded the conversation. (This is the bit of the recording I most miss, as I didn’t make much in the way of notes.)

They ended up with seven groups,  the two which were the easiest for them to pull out where those referring to rewards and goals. The discussion around this was bast very much on achievement and the dextrous skills and game-knowledge that allows a competant player to show off, at one point one of them added “spectacle for others” to that group, talking about people who like to post videos of their brilliance on-line for others to watch. Later on they were quite disparaging about those people that boasted about their competence on-line.

The second, and largest group was around role-playing, and here, the discussion was about creating your own avatar, refining every details and immersing yourself in a rich fantasy world. Interestingly, there was a slight tendency to corral RPGs into the mediaval worlds of Skyrim and Zelda and talk of Mass Effect about which there was some discussion) as something other, but I think it was conceptually folded into this genre with a discussion about the immersive, filmic qualities of games like The Last of Us. Nurturing games, like the Sims or the many pet-care variants were counted by the focus group as a subgroup of Roleplaying mechanics.

The third group turned out to have a number of the “serious fun” mechanics: study, work out, rhythm etc.  And that was how they indentified it (without of course using the “serious fun” tag. A small group was made almost exclusively of “people fun” mechanics: Lead; Mentor; Cooperate; Communicate and Compete. These were seen as applying to physical team sports as well as (or more so than) computer games. And the focus-group’s unprompted creation of these groupings made me think there might well be something in Navarro’s work, and that it might apply to more than just digital games.

One collection was all about strategy, and challenging environments, puzzle solving in an immersive situation. Lara Croft, Far Cry and exploratory games were mentioned in this discussion, as well as the Monkey Island series.

I then asked a stupid question, about whether one set of mechanics appealed more than any other. Of course no-one said one did. They pointed out that a good game, Skyrim was the example they used, has a mix of all the mechanical groups. It offer levels and increasing skills, you are also creating your own character. One member described playing it socially, though that functionality isn’t available yet. Three players would start playing at the same time, and compare their progress as they played. Next time I’ll ask instead if there’s a group of mechanics that they could do without, that might be more insightful.

This group placed a lot on emphasis on the story, even though they also said they didn’t like being on rails – they decided in the end that they wanted the illusion of not being on rails. The Last of Us, one said, is not designed to be played again and again. Another was reminded about controversy over mass effect, that there was only one ending. This prompted discussing of Elder Scrolls on-line, and the difference between Far Cry 3’s single player and multi-player modes – the multi-player mode focused more on points scored, kills and achievements, and less on narrative.

Bioshock and Borderland’s worlds came up in discussion, one player explained that part of the attraction of those games was just being in their worlds. Immersion is a word that gets mentioned a lot, and its going to be a challenge for our “real-world” game. Something to thing more upon.

The group then returned narrative, and the importance of a good ending. I think that’s easier for us to provide.

Then I moved the discussion to communications. Everyone had a smartphones – a couple with iPhones, the rest with Android. There was very little love for Windows phone and no mention of Blackberry. I shared a set of cards featuring the logos of most of the famous networking/messaging tools as well as some more surprising ones that had been mentioned in the survey, and asked them to comment on them.

The first thing somebody pointed out was the lack of Microsoft branding, this was said with no surprise. One of girls and one of the boys pointed out the lack of Facetime, which was more surprising them them because it was something they used. One person mentioned using Steam as a communication method. This prompted a discussion of Google Hangouts and Skype for conferencing. One young man uses Skype a lot, for all his gaming conversations and talking to his girlfriend.

I asked about preferences for text messaging.  First to the bottom of the list was Facebook “Its just annoying now” “The only thing I didn’t miss when I spent a month off-line” However it was useful for keeping track of family and friends abroad, getting notifications from clubs and the messaging function was still the primary method of communication for at least one group-member. He said it was because he spent a lot of time on his computer at home and wanted to carry over conversations to his phone when out and about. Other preferred SMS and chose to ignore a backlog of Facebook messages.

Snapchat came in for a lot of criticism, one girl uses it quite a lot, but hates it because its so, slow. Viber came in for special praise because of the quality of international voice calling.

Something that became apparent is the way young people use different networks to segment their social contacts, keeping family and friends separate. The challenge they present us is the one thing everybody uses is SMS, rather than data. Because SMS is now unlimited for most users.

Then we got round to discussing the early concepts for the conspiracy game itself. There wasn’t overwhelming enthusiam for the game as described. One young man warned that “I don’t think I’d get out enough to enjoy it.” One person raised concerns about trying to achieve too much in any day, and worried about letting other people do the work for him. He wanted to be there, not to turn up at the end without any sense of achievement because he’d left it to others to find the clues.

This lead to a discussion about team work “You need to have equal participation”, one said or there’s no sense of achievement. This led to a discussion about a mechanic about people in a team having to be (say three) particular places at the appointed time. There was a concern though about being let down by a friend who didn’t turn up. The group preferred a mechanic where if  a number of people turned up at a target place within a certain timeslot everyone there might get a points multiplier, but if you turned up without anybody else, you’d still succeed, and the story will still progress.

A mention of fliers at the locations brought the discussion round to marketing. I asked how we’d bring it to local young people’s attention. Word of mouth is the main vector of marketing to the group, they also mentioned on-line adverting, which can be localised and personalized relatively cheaply(but its something we need to budget for). No-one admits to reading magazines. Youth-clubs and other networks may be effective. We talked about early adopters convincing others to use it, one person suggested that the early phases of the game should be at busy locations.

It makes me wonder if the game should be a modern version of the Southampton Plot, rather like an updated version of a Shakespeare play. So our players can be conspirators on a modern, immersive conspiracy, that mirrors the 600 year old plot: Hal as a Dave Cameron, rousing the rabble to war against France, with the conspirators choosing to work for or against him… The costumes would be cheaper.